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Is It Healthier to Shop for Groceries Online or at the Store?

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Grocery list in hand, you fill your cart with all the healthy groceries you'll need to make your family's meals for the week. Avocados are on sale, so you buy a few extra to have in your green smoothies. Then you get to the checkout line, where Reese's Cups are buy one, get one free. You shake your head, congratulating yourself on your willpower, as your arm, on its own volition, somehow reaches out and grabs one...or two. After all, they're BOGO! Then there's freshly baked bread—right there by the checkout line. It smells divine and would go great with the healthy low-carb dinner you planned to make. The next thing you know, you've put the groceries in the car and eaten the offending candy (and the entire loaf of bread) while driving home so no one will find out.

Sound familiar?

Here's the deal: When you decide to clean up your diet and deprive yourself of your favorite treats, that very deprivation often sets you up for failure (known as the Deprivation Effect in my world). You're good until temptation hits and suddenly the What-the-Hell Effect (yes, that's its actual name) sets in and you binge on foods on your "do not eat" list. Translation: You already had the one Reese's cup, so you've already broken your diet. What the hell? Might as well make it two, and add some fresh-baked bread while you're at it.

So how do you avoid the Deprivation and What-the-Hell Effects? One client of mine joked she was going to lock herself in her house and stop going to work, as the workplace kitchen—with its candy-filled vending machines—was her downfall. Another said she was going to stop going to the grocery store and shop for food online as even the self-check aisles are now filled with temptation.

I began to wonder if she was on to something. Would shopping from home actually help her lose weight and keep it off? I visited a few of the more common online stores like Vitacost and Amazon Pantry. The biggest issue I ran into was that I couldn't quite satisfy my need for fresh fruit and veggies. Or organic fresh meats and dairy for that matter. However, there are local services like Brown Box in my area that will deliver those to my door. The big question remains: Can you avoid temptation and eat better by shopping online?

Yes and no. The ads for 25 percent off sugary cereals are less tempting because they aren't going to fill an immediate need—you need to wait for delivery, so you're less likely to cave in and make an impulse buy just because something is on sale. Because it's online, you also avoid the olfactory cues of freshly baked goods like doughnuts and bread. I don't know about you, but the idea of buying bread online is far less appealing to me than buying it fresh from the bakery. So two points for shopping online.

The catch, calorie-wise, is either in packaging or shipping. Some stores, like Vitacost, require you spend a certain amount to obtain free shipping—and who doesn't want free shipping? I kept finding myself needing to buy one more small, cheap item to qualify for the minimum shipping amount. What can I get that costs $2.41? Hmmm. Cookies sound good!

Amazon shows you how much of a pantry box each item will fill. As they ship using a flat fee, knowing how much of your box is full vs. empty makes the economical shopper in me want to jam every square inch of that box full. And look at what would fit perfectly in that tiny space: Cookies!

If you often buy prepackaged foods, you certainly might find them cheaper online than in a grocery store, all while avoiding the tempting baked bread by the checkout line. On the other hand, if you like to fill your cart with fresh foods like I do, online shopping might make you a less healthy shopper because you can't get the fresh ingredients you would need to make dinner. Plus, if you want free shipping (or to fill your box), you'll probably have to buy at least one item that wasn't on your list.

So are you better off shopping in a grocery store or online? I do both! I buy things like spices and vitamins online because they typically are cheaper. But the bulk of my grocery shopping still happens in my local market where I get to pick from a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, organic meats, and dairy. I still go in with my grocery list, and I use the self-checkout aisles as they usually have fewer tempting items lining them. Knowing the psychology behind item placement in grocery stores has also helped me avoid the tempting candy and the freshly baked bread. Do I occasionally buy something that's not on my grocery list? Absolutely. But knowing about the Deprivation and What-the-Hell Effects also makes it clear that putting anything on the "avoid at all costs" food list is probably a bad idea for me. Besides, I'd rather eat the occasional freshly baked cookie and actually enjoy it when I want it than deprive myself and set myself up for a junk-food binge.

Regardless of which method you find is best for you, happy shopping!